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Democracy and its discontents

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC of Roland Rich, Democracy in Crisis: Why, Where and How to Respond (Lynne Reinner, 2017), Macquarie University, Sydney, 17 August 2017

Though I would never be so ungracious to admit it at the time, some book launches can be, for the launcher, more of a chore than a joy. But this is absolutely not the case for me with Roland Rich’s Democracy in Crisis. Reading it has been a delight, and launching it is a pleasure. Lucidly and entertainingly written, this is as stimulating, challenging, and as useful as any book you could possibly read on this subject, or indeed on just about any other subject of equivalent policy importance.

Roland brings to the enterprise years of immediately relevant experience as founding executive head of the UN Democracy Fund from 2007-14, and before that as director of the Centre for Democratic Institutions at the Australian National University from 1998-2005. He has also been a very accomplished diplomat – with whom I had the pleasure of working as Foreign Minister in a variety of his incarnations, not least when we were both present at the rebirth of Czech democracy in Prague in 1989.

He also brings to the writing the perspective that a period of absence from the direct coal-face can often bring, telling us that he ‘no longer has to be the professional optimist’. Not helping his optimism about the future of democracy has been his direct exposure to its operation in the United States, for the last few years teaching at Rutgers University. I have contributed a few adjectives myself in recent months to the literature on Donald Trump, but Roland’s Postscript describing the five stages of grief he has worked through since last November is as poignant an account as I have read anywhere of the spectacular fall from grace of the world’s great democratic role-model.

His argument about the unhappy current state of play – and the critical need to fix it – focuses not only on the problems afflicting Western democracies like the United States but the whole world. Democracy’s soft power has been eroding. The transitions to democracy that we were all applauding a few years ago have in many cases not consolidated. And new challenges are coming from the resurgence of authoritarianism, with Putin emboldening existing and would-be autocrats in various parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East; from the success of China’s own particular brand of authoritarianism, Leninist capitalism; and from religion in the form of Islamist extremism, or jihadism.

In discussing how to respond to these challenges, Roland begins, sensibly, by weighing the credibility of the various explanations that have traditionally been offered for democratization: understanding the factors that best explain how democracies are built, consolidated, and held together under stress is a necessary prelude to identifying what strategies are needed to achieve these objectives.

The most widely accepted theory until now is modernization – that growing middle classes, as they become more prosperous and educated, will demand more say in the decisions that affect their lives. This works up to a point, but certainly not in explaining the emergence of democracy in countries like India. And the experience of countries like Thailand, Venezuela, Turkey and Egypt indicates that middle class support for the continuation of democracy can be very fickle if it is not seen as protecting that class’s interests. No other explanation, like the role of parties, gives a complete account either, but Roland argues plausibly that the best of the rest is ‘associational energy’, viz. the presence or absence of flourishing civil society.

Coming in the last part of his book to strategies to best respond to democracy’s current discontents, Roland offers three major prescriptions. The most obvious is that while we should stand up, to the extent we can, to direct challenges to democracy by the legion of tyrants, autocrats and religious and other ideologues who hate everything it stands for, we should not overdo that response: we should know by now that bombing for democracy is no way to win hearts and minds.

The second prescription developed here at much greater length, is that we should continue to everything we can to invest in the forces in favour of global democratization, but do this in a smarter way than has been the norm until now. The main theme, built on the earlier analysis that civil society is the critical cement for democracy, is that official aid should be much less government-channelled, and much more people-focused – going not top-down but bottom-up, and at the micro level, to civil society organisations and private sector entrepreneurs.

Perhaps Roland’s biggest single idea (one to which most policymakers of my generation were largely immune) is that women worldwide – what he describes as the ‘bottom three billion’ – are potentially hugely significant drivers of democratization and should be much more directly and systematically targeted in support programs. The chapters on both aid policy and the role of gender in contemporary global politics make fascinating stand-alone reading. Ranging rather more broadly than just their impact on democracy, and robustly opinionated in the finest Australian tradition, they should provoke lively discussion in their own right.

The final prescription in the book is that democracy has to be made more admirable. The most effective way of all to be influential is to create the wish to be emulated, and restoring democracy’s declining soft power means fixing what has been going wrong in our own houses. Writing for an American and international audience, Roland here focuses essentially on the fixes screaming out for attention in the US system – including managing the election process professionally and nationally (as India does, for 800 million voters, with infinitely more credibility); having votes on a non-working day when people can actually get to the polls; and bypassing the crazily anachronistic Electoral College in presidential elections. It’s a pretty fair bet that changes of this kind would have saved the United States, and the world, from Donald Trump, as they certainly would have saved us from George W Bush. But it would take even more optimism than I am usually capable of mustering to think that they are likely to be capable of implementation any time soon.

What is to be said about remedying the kind of dysfunction that is roiling our own Australian democratic system at the moment, along with a lot of other long-established systems of representative democracy in Europe and elsewhere? We have seen a serious decline in the capacity of governments to govern effectively. Populist pressures, and the associated rejection of ‘elites’ and ‘experts’, have inhibited good policymaking, and sometimes any at all. Single issue parties and politics have been gaining ground, with the major parties losing support, or becoming captive to single issue politics, or both. Internal stresses have been mounting, especially on the conservative side of politics, with a big cultural divide evident between those comfortable and uncomfortable with change. And there has been a breakdown in civility in those systems which depend on this at least partly – as does the Australian Senate – for their effective functioning.

Looking at the democratic state of play worldwide, as Roland Rich does so well in his book, being a merely dysfunctional democracy – the issue on which I would like to offer a few more thoughts of my own – might not appear to be too bad. Looking elsewhere, we see not only non-democracies like China, where democratic values and systems have failed to gain any toehold at all. We see what I call façade democracies, really de facto autocracies, who might have the trappings of elections, but lack the institutions or institutionalised right protections that give any content to the idea of liberal democracy. Russia, for example, which may be a majoritarian democracy, but is not remotely a liberal one. Or Cambodia, where the system is so corrupted it is not even clear that the government has a majoritarian mandate. We see manifestly illiberal democracies, for example the Philippines under Duterte, Hungary under Orban, Poland under Kaczynski and Turkey under Erdogan. We also see in Turkey, if present trends are not reversed, what might be a latter day Reichstag democracy, where a democratically elected government uses that mandate to move to a fully authoritarian system.

But being a merely dysfunctional democracy is bad enough. And we have seen the way in which dysfunctional democratic politics seems to be accompanied by a slide toward illiberal democracy. There has been the visibly growing strength of far-right parties including the emergence of the Hansonsites in Australia, although the trend seems to have at least temporarily halted in France, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands, There has been Brexit in the United Kingdom, clearly driven at least in part by the nativist, anti-immigrant dimension at the heart of the UKIP campaign. And there has of course been the Trump phenomenon in the United States, with the populism maybe primarily economically driven, but clearly also with a strong illiberal, racist dimension.

The question everyone is asking is why effectively-functioning Western liberal democracy is under strain. To this a fairly common set of answers is being given, with the main trends now quite evident in Europe and the United States also showing up in Australia to an ever-increasing extent. It is a combination of three different kinds of anxieties – economic, security and cultural – which have become mutually self-reinforcing.

Economic anxiety is being driven by the reality that the world is not only globalising but digitalising at crazy speed. Old jobs are being lost and people just don’t see where the new ones are coming from. People do feel that they are being left behind, and they are not satisfied by Malcolm Turnbull-speak or its international equivalents – talk about ‘exciting times’ and the miracles that innovation will produce. And they are not satisfied by economist-speak generally. Economists talk in aggregates, but people’s experience is granular. They can see there will be winners – the skilled. But they know there will be losers – the unskilled, and those in certain locations. And this is the first time in generations that parents are worried that their children will be worse off than they are. In Australia in particular, that concern is encapsulated in the fear that they will be unable to ever buy a house. People are more conscious than before of income inequality, and rightly so, because that is now gross by historical standards. As Roland notes, in the mid-1980s the gold standard was that a CEO be paid no more than around twenty times what his average worker earned: today the ratio is around 300.

As to security anxiety, since 9/11 the fear of terrorism has been palpable, reinforced by horrifying further assaults in Paris, Madrid, Bali, London and elsewhere. While the scale of these incidents in Australia has been minimal by comparison, and the intensity of intelligence and law enforcement efforts have meant that these risks have in fact been reasonably contained everywhere, no-one, anywhere, can assume immunity. There is a further longstanding fear in Western cities of violent crime, and – unhappily, and usually without any redeeming evidence – a tendency to conflate that with the fear of Islamist extremism, given issues associated with the absorption of those displaced by the terrible continuing conflicts in the Middle East.

The remaining inter-related factor driving current unhappiness with traditional democratic politics is cultural anxiety. It is an all too familiar phenomenon for economic and security anxieties to manifest themselves as backlash against ‘the other’ – with complete indifference to evidence and rational argument, immigrants are seen as taking jobs, asylum seekers as taking welfare, and Muslims as threatening our security. Many people are inherently less comfortable with cosmopolitanism – with diversity and difference – than metropolitan elites assume, and this is much compounded when overlaid with economic and security anxieties. As someone put it recently: ‘the world looks quite different when viewed from Caboolture rather than Carlton’.

All this translates into a political environment where traditional left-right ideological orientation has, to a significant extent, morphed into much less tribal, party-rusted, cultural differentiation – between those more instinctively oriented to an open, and those to a closed, society. The key differentiating issues here are support for open rather than closed borders; free trade rather than protectionist barriers; a cosmopolitan society rather than one driven by nationalist and nativist sentiment; and an international outlook which is globalist rather than isolationist. To the extent that these issues are becoming more salient differentiators than the traditional left-right ones, it is not surprising to see that more people are finding major parties less able to meet their ideological and emotional needs. And that they become more willing under these circumstances to support single issue or limited issue groupings – in Australia, protectionist like Xenophon, or xenophobic like Hanson, or vaguely all-purpose-idealist like the Greens – which they find more satisfying.

Restoring effectively functioning Western liberal democracy is going to require new listening, new thinking, and new acting. My own approach here – although I confess I have never, until reading this book – thought of it in these terms, resonates very much with what Roland Rich describes as the need to feminize our politics.

As to new listening, given the difficulty of realising Bertold Brecht’s wonderfully surreal suggestion that ‘the government… dissolve the people and elect another’, the sensible course would appear to be not to blame the people, but to understand why they are reacting as they are. That means leaders listening, not lecturing. Not many leaders in our recent Australian past have had that instinctive ability to connect. John Howard seemed able to manage it across a fairly broad spread of the community, but Bob Hawke was probably the last to be able to do that across pretty much the whole social spectrum. If the mainstream political parties are not seen to be listening to, and taking seriously, the concerns of ordinary people, the political fringe-dwellers are all too willing to fill the gap. Nature abhors a vacuum.

New thinking means new policy approaches to the issues that are really resonating with the disaffected – above all being seen to seriously address the central concern that no–one be left behind. We simply have to find new ways of compensating, and trying to meet the life aspirations, of those who are now finding it very hard to be winners in the new economic environment, and are going to find it even harder in the future if present trends continue. The Hawke-Keating Government was able to achieve massively necessary and long overdue economic efficiencies by its compensatory ‘social wage’ approach, but these approaches may be much harder now to implement. Maybe we have to start thinking seriously about quite radical approaches like Universal Basic Income (UBI). Whatever the answers prove to be, it is imperative that our political leaders visibly start looking for them, and not just peddling the same old remedies, or looking for the same old (or new) scapegoats.

New acting means above all else bringing a new style to the business of politics, which is more cooperative and consultative, but also more courageous. It means the major parties picking less fights with each other for the sake of having them, but also standing their ground on big issues when they have distinctive policies to advance, as they must if they are to be heard above the populist clamour.

As to the cooperative side of the equation this means, for parties in government, less focus on point scoring and more on finding common ground, supporting summits and consensus-building conferences of the kind that Bob Hawke made an art form. It means more green papers and white papers, encouraging argument and debate on major policy issues, and spelling out options for policy change – however politically risky the mere floating of some of them may seem to be – before they are actually implemented. And it means treating the parliament itself more seriously as a forum for debate, including by presenting defence white papers there rather than on the decks of photogenic battleships.

All that should be reciprocated by less howling by opposition parties and the media for particular policy options to be publicly ‘ruled out’ when it becomes known they are on the table. Managing internal party differences is difficult enough, and forcing the nervous reflex rejection of anything remotely contentious is death to intelligent policymaking. For parties in opposition, a more constructive approach would also mean opposing outright only those measures which are absolutely and fundamentally at odds with their own party policy or ideology.

Of course they should spell out their own preferred approach had they been in power themselves, but the normal practice should be, even for measures they do not much like, to accept that the government of the day has a general mandate for what it wants to do, and allow it to govern. No party in opposition should want to chalk up a record of negativity so relentless and indefensible that it will come back to haunt it when it returns to power with a legislative program of its own to get through.

The media have undoubtedly contributed to the present malaise with their infinite appetite for win-loss personality politics, ‘gotcha’ moments, and political blood-sport generally. But the current political generation does not need to feed either the traditional media or social media beasts as much as it does. In particular it should not be as spooked by the 24/7 media cycle as it has been. There is a great deal to be said for the old rule (not that I always observed it myself) of talking to the media only when you have something to say, and not talking when you don’t. Not all publicity is good publicity.

None of these prescriptions is going to be easy to implement in practice. Nor can we be sure that responding in all these ways to current discontents will actually work in restoring functioning Western liberal democracy as we have known it. But we have to try, because not to do so is essentially to abandon democratic politics – and everything that is so extraordinarily valuable about the practice of democratic politics, as many centuries of hard experience should by now have taught us.

Let me conclude where I began by saying that no-one understands all these issues better than Roland Rich. I have rarely if ever heard either the problems of democratic politics, or the kind of solutions we need to find for them, better articulated than in this book – Democracy in Crisis: Why, Where, How to Respond – which I am delighted to now declare duly launched.